Review: The Killing Joke Animated Movie
I was given the opportunity to watch a preview edition of DC Animation’s new movie, an adaptation of one of the most controversial comics of all time: The Killing Joke. It’s a short comic, which makes it difficult to create a feature-length film, so instead of going all Peter Jackson and extending the material, DC decided to create a whole backstory centered on Batgirl, aka Barbara Gordon. They claimed this is to flesh out Barbara’s character and give her a stronger role within the story, making her not just a victim.
The Killing Joke is famous because it’s the comic that defined murdering or hospitalising a woman to further the male protagonist’s story, a story trope called “fridging.” In this case, the Joker shoots Barbara and paralyses her legs, leading to the creation of Oracle. When the comic first came out, The Killing Joke was non-canon, a standalone story. Alan Moore later went on to hate and virtually disown the comic, but DC turned it into canon. Although the character of Oracle went on to be good, the shooting was a low point in DC history that fans hated—so much so that in Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr’s rebooted Batgirl run, they removed the shooting from canon and popularized her. There was much rejoicing.
It didn’t end there, though. DC just relaunched Batgirl and placed the events of The Killing Joke back into canon, right in the first issue of the new Batgirl, which has sadly now become grim like so many other DC comics. It’s a move that stunned many people, but it seems like it was timed to tie-in with the release of this animated version. (Which I frequently refer to as ‘The Killing Duck’ as it’s much more lighthearted than the original title.) As I sat down to watch the movie, I thought I’d live tweet it. What you’ll read below isn’t exactly that live tweet, because I’ve cleaned it up and added more detail and context, but it’s close. If you want the real deal see here. Without further ado then, Batman: The Killing Duck.
The Killing Duck opens with Batgirl narrating the good times and the beauty of Gotham. In the background, a skyscraper has Bats’ cowl ears on top of it. Is this coincidence or does Wayne enterprises always build things with ‘ears’ on them. How do they explain that at board meetings? Bruce just happens to like pointy ears on everything?
“I’ve been with Batman almost three years,” she says. The context is ambiguous here. Does she mean she’s fighting crime alongside him, or is she in love and in a one-sided relationship with him? I guess we’ll have to wait and see. The next scene is all action. We’re seeing a robbery take place, and both Batman and Batgirl are fighting. Batgirl is shown to be not as good as Batman in a fight. As usual, this happens in every movie. No one else in the Bat family seems to come close to Batman. (#TeamGrayson). Bats then tortures a captured criminal, as Batgirl winces and walks away. In the very next scene, Batgirl is called hot; we’re only a few minutes in, and Batgirl is already getting objectified. DC added this Batgirl arc at the start of the movie to make her a “stronger character,” but she’s objectified almost right away. This doesn’t bode well.
We’re inside the library where Babs works. She’s talking a friend, and says, “I’m involved with someone. Kind of. Sort of.” The assumption here is that she’s talking about Bats. They’re “involved,” another hint towards a relationship between the two. We’re laying groundwork here for … something. Switch to another robbery. Seriously, why do people still live in Gotham? That place should be deserted by now. Anywhere else on the planet is more peaceful than Gotham. Batgirl swoops in to stop the robbery and she’s easily defeated, only this time there is no Batman to save the day. Like a jerk, he arrives after the fact with a cup of coffee as though that makes everything OK. It’s not even a Frappuccino.
Bats tells Barbara off for trying to stop the robbery alone. After all, she’s only Batgirl. He goes on to give her a dressing down, saying, “You want to work with me, you do what I say.”
“You speak and the words are law?” Batgirl asks.
“Yes,” Bats replies without emotion. If Batman and Batgirl are in a relationship, then I’d say it is a BDSM one, but that requires consent. Doesn’t seem to be any consent here, just Batman doing a Judge Dredd impersonation. Scene again shifts to the library, where Babs is really annoyed and talking to her friend. He asks if she’s having sex with her boyfriend.
“God, no!” Babs replies. She sounds genuinely disgusted by the idea, but goes on to say that she’s “the best he’s ever had.” Again, this is a shade ambiguous, but contextually you have to assume that she means best sidekick. They really are laying the Babs and Bats relationship on thick, in a not very subtle subtext. It’s here that Babs’ highly stereotyped gay friend is revealed, and the movie drops another notch in quality. As he walks away he says, “And they say the gay scene is complicated. Whaaaaaaaaaaaat.”
The scene changes back to the robbers from earlier, who are escorting escorts off of a boat. One of these escorts is a woman that looks exactly like Babs. She’s a redhead who was paid to wear a cowl made from a black pillowcase over her head. Heavy handed signposting for more objectification. At this stage in the movie, Barbara is pining over the unemotional & abusive Batman. Meanwhile the bad guy is pining for Babs. Everything is about either Babs’ desire for Bats, or someone else’s desire for her. In this world, Batgirl only exists to be desirous.
Babs has no redeeming individual character traits yet. Her existence is as a pawn to be lusted after, to be not as good as Bats, to adore Bats and be adored by others. The movie is not building Babs up at all. But then, some dialogue in this film is just plain weird. One of the robbers says, “I thought you Brits liked salt air.” This actually made me pause the film to go get a drink. What, like Brits are somehow amphibian & coastal? “I thought you Yanks liked carbon monoxide.” That could be a line from this movie, it makes as much sense.
What counts for a plot moves on as the bad guy betrays the other bad guys. Then he sends Batgirl a video, wherein he calls her “my special girl” in a super awful and patronising way. You’d think Batgirl’s reaction to this would be a slap-down, sarcasm or just feeling insulted. Instead, she’s happy to be patronised by this guy and says, “Well it is a little flattering.” At this point, the idea that DC has made Batgirl a stronger character is on flames and thrown itself out of a window—a skyscraper window. Yes, it has bat ears, too.
Batman has to tell Batgirl that the criminal has objectified her in one of the most epic pieces of mansplaining seen in a movie. Women have no clue about being objectified obviously, as it’s something they never experience. Batman knows best as he then kicks her off the case.
I just realised, if you take a piece of 2×4 wood and place a cowl on it, make some growling noises and cloth flapping sounds, you have the Batman of this movie—aside from the wood having more of an emotional range, of course. Batman is voiced by the absolute best Batman voice actor, Kevin Conroy. Yet in this movie, it’s like he’s phoning it in. Really not a good performance for some reason. Barbara ignores Batman and remains involved in the case, following her own leads as she contacts the bad guy. He calls her “baby” & “girl,” but Babs ignores both of these patronising insults for some reason. Bad guy is asking Barbara to go get something for him and she does.
He’s so obviously using her it’s painful to watch. Barbara is is supposed to be badass, 2×4 trained force to be reckoned with, so this scene makes no sense. Barbara opens a door and a dead body falls out. The bad guy then says, “For you, my love.” So Babs follows the trap to perfection. Both her compliance and objectification here are strange because they don’t even follow the plot well, let alone Barbara’s character from the comics. Barbara is saved from the trap by 2×4 who then shames her. “He led you like a lapdog.” 2×4 then rants at Babs, saying that she “hasn’t seen the abyss.”
Batman here is doing some vile pick up artist lines, undercutting Barbera to the point of destruction, emotionally wasting her, then physically overpowering her. Barbara reacts by kissing him. I didn’t expect it to be this bad but it is. 2×4 doesn’t emotionally react of course, he just lies there like … a piece of wood. Babs strips off her cowl and shirt as the camera pans to a maniacally grinning gargoyle. This scene is bad in so many ways. It’s one sided, with Babs doing all the work and expressing all the emotion. It’s abusive toward her, both physically and mentally. It’s also objectifying her again, as she’s the only one that takes off clothing.
In the next scene, Babs is at home, standing in front of a mirror in her underwear (again, so that’s twice now). A man has yet to be objectified sexually in this movie, but women have been on multiple occasions. Barbara has regrets, blaming herself as if 2×4 wasn’t involved at all. Okay, I mean he kinda wasn’t. You trying getting it on with a cowled 2×4. You’ll have regrets, too. And splinters. Scene changes back to the library and Babs is talking to her gay friend, who only exists as a sounding board for her. Babs says that sex with the 2×4 was “fantastic.” I’m trying to picture how that would work, but even my dirty imagination fails.
Despite the sex scene being really bad, this next scene is the scene that truly reveals the fact that the writer has no idea how to write an empowered woman. Barbara is on the street where a woman is being harangued by her boyfriend, cowering in fear of him.
Babs steps in, dominates the man physically while the woman still cowers, and then Babs just walks away. That’s not an empowering scene, it’s just Babs being physically abusive, acting in a worse way than the boyfriend had. Women don’t need to act abusive to be empowered. That’s imagined male dominance empowerment, not an empowered woman. Male writers often don’t understand the difference.
Batgirl is sitting on a roof talking to pigeons. The pigeons emote better than the cowled 2×4. I feel for those pigeons. Babs calls 2×4 and begs for another hookup. Begging is not an exaggeration. 2×4 responds with, “Later,” and puts down the phone. The context in his reply is ambiguous; we’ll deal with this later, or will we hookup later?
Back to the bad guys. They ambush 2×4 and, using a rocket launcher, they blow up the woodmobile. 2×4 is in trouble. Here’s a chance for the movie to redeem itself as Batgirl swings in to the rescue. Only, no, that’s not how it goes. Imagine the many possible ways to undercut a woman superhero or reduce her down to “just a woman.” This scene does them all.
Instead of having Babs be an active presence rescuing 2×4, she beats up the bad guy, yelling, “YOU RUINED EVERYTHING!” She’s referring, of course, to her infatuation with 2×4 and getting kicked off the case. Instead of her doing her job as Batgirl, she’s acting irrationally on emotion. It’s all really about how she feels for the 2×4, her love of his splintery embrace. Babs can be nothing and do nothing without unless it’s all centered on her kink for the splintery crusader. Um, I mean the cowled 2×4. Ah, dammit, I mean Batman. Babs is a mirrored void who is only present to reflect Batman’s masculine strength. She isn’t actually a character here, she’s male wish fulfillment.
It gets worse. After Batgirl yells at the bad guy while beating him, he responds with, “Must be that time of the month.” Yes, this is a movie in 2016 that has a “women are crazy on their period” joke. Putting aside the fact that not all women have periods, this is beyond insulting for those that do. This is a regular slur often thrown at successful women. They can’t be as good as men, because they “go crazy” once a month. I can’t believe for one minute that DC really thought this movie empowered Batgirl, unless they believe that screen time alone equals empowerment. Babs quits as Batgirl after the fight, and that is the end of the add-on story.
The movie then moves into the story of the Killing Duck. This first arc is so self contained that it is held on to the second by duct tape. It feels badly tacked on. The writing in the second half is better, but it is based on material that has been around a long time. I’m going to be brief about this second arc, as most of you already know the story. I’m going to skip to the worst scenes, which includes the traumatic scene of Barbara getting shot by the Joker. Hamill performing the Joker voice is still amazing. Even in this terrible movie he shines.
Babs answers the door, and the Joker is there. He is in that Hawaiian shirt with the camera around his neck, the works. He presses the gun over her stomach and BANG. Barbara falls backwards is in slow motion. The shooting is glorified, with blood flying all over the screen. In Blade Runner, the glorification of violence was used to juxtapose its terrible nature, how awful it was to take a life. This movie is not that complex. We see a close up of Barbara twitching on the floor. The Joker steps over her, joking the whole time. There are lots of gags about how she won’t walk again, more disability gags. DC went all in on this; full on Barbara getting fridged with no shame.
Bullock reveals that Babs was found naked, a little detail they could so easily have left out, yet apparently they were committed to putting the true Killing Duck on screen. So here we are with Barbara shot and sexually assaulted by the Joker. 2×4, as always, shows no emotion and just asks to be alone with Babs. He strokes her face with a splintery paw. He talks to her. She of course wakes up, shocked that wood is talking to her. I mean, wouldn’t you? It all just feels like a lead up to the 2×4 versus Joker fight at the end of the movie, but we’ve still got a third of the film to go. I’m not sure what they’ll fill all that time with. I expect it’ll just become a movie on carpentry—how to make a chair, or a bookcase. Woodworking with Batman.
Sadly, no, it’s mostly flashbacks. I wanted 2×4 to make a birdhouse from pine. Now my dreams are ruined. 2×4 is in an alley talking to prostitutes, holding up a poster of the Joker. They explain that Joker always goes to them for sex after he escapes, but this time he didn’t. Implication here is that only bad guys use prostitutes, which is utter nonsense. That’s often how it’s presented in movies, with two occurrences in this one. Bad guys use prostitutes, so by implication, prostitutes are bad. Nope, they’re not. It’s another trope that needs challenging. Joker then performs a musical number and this so easily could have been the highlight of act 2 but it has so many mental health gags that just make me feel ill and detract from any possible dark comedy in the scene.
2×4 arrives at the fairground, and we’re in freefall to the end now. 2×4 takes out Joker’s enslaved helpers. Joker shows Gordon off, then escapes by spraying acid at the 2×4, who splinters manfully with a grunt. Gordon reveals that Joker has been showing him pictures of Babs, implying that she was naked in them. Gordon tells him to go get Joker by the book; he pleads with the 2×4. I’m not sure why, as the 2×4 has yet to show any emotion at all. My bowl of grapes has more emotion. Joker delivers a crazy speech to 2×4 while hitting him.
Then 2×4 really sums up this whole movie. “I’ve heard it before. And it wasn’t funny the first time.” He proceeds to beat up the Joker. Then you get the flashlight gag… and 2×4 finally emotes by laughing. This is his first real emotional reaction in the movie aside from grunts. He didn’t emote after having sex with Babs, firing Babs, Babs getting shot, Babs being paralysed, Babs getting sexually assaulted, Gordon captured, or even Gordon getting tortured. A joke gets to Batman in the end, and we’re supposed to be on Batman’s side. Fade to black, the end.
The mid-credits scene shows the origin of Oracle.
While I can’t recommend buying this movie, you really should watch it. Borrow it from a friend, rent it, or go to the library. It’s going to be celebrated by a certain subset of comic fans: those that think that nothing is up with The Killing Duck. Yes, those fans. Knowing why this story is bad helps fight against the view that The Killing Duck is a classic. Another reason to see this movie is that it shows exactly how to not write a heroine. It shows how to fail at empowering her. It even shows the the differences between male and female empowerment.
Do you want to write for animation? Comics? Anything that has women in it? See this movie. See where this goes wrong, how it thinks it is empowering its heroine, but undermines her in every scene. This movie shows exactly why we need to hire more women writers. Many good women writers exist, many who understand the difference between actual women empowerment vs male-gaze empowerment. Why don’t women writers succeed as much as men? There are so few of us in the media. It’s not because we suck or that we can’t write—we just don’t get hired.
We exist in a time when a poor/average male writer will be hired over a great woman writer just because he’s a guy. Look at how many women writers were on a Marvel or DC comic this month or the next. There are only almost all male writers. Are all the comics great? No, they really aren’t. Where does this lack of opportunity for women lead? It leads to The Killing Duck, which was removed from canon only to later be brought back in. It is still celebrated. Killing diversity leads to a stagnant industry that, through attrition, shrinks. There are less sales, less popularity, less relevance, less media.
We need more and different voices, especially those of Black & PoC women. More LGB voices, and especially trans voices. We need more diversity, not less—it’s the only way we grow. Different voices means different experiences. Able-bodied people cannot write disabled people as well as a disabled writer can. Experience counts. This is the only way media can prosper, and it’ll lead to less Duck Killing.
Self-serving advert: Hi, I’m a trans writer and speaker. Hire me! :) Okay, I’m done. I recommend you see The Killing Duck if you can cope with it. It has a lot of lessons to teach us all, like how to not emote, how to love wood or how to cope with splinters. Do you need silicone or water based lube for your wood partner? This movie will answer those questions and more.
Marcy (@marcyjcook) is an immigrant trans woman and writer. This includes Transcanuck.com, a website dedicated to informing and helping trans Canadians. She also has a nerd job, too many cats, is a part time volunteer sex educator and has an ongoing sordid love affair with Lego. Those last two are not related … probably.
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